In the moments after its Big Ten Tournament semifinal win over Northwestern on Saturday, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team was already turning its mind to Michigan.
The Badgers and Wolverines will play for the tournament title Sunday at 3 p.m., the third time they have played this season. But much has changed since the last time the teams met.
In the last game, on Feb. 16, Michigan rode Zak Irvin and Moritz Wagner to an upset victory over the Badgers, giving them a marquee win as part of their thundering run over the last month of the season. While All-Big Ten forward Ethan Happ finished with 22 points, Michigan held him to just four in the second half of what became an important resume-builder for the Wolverines.
But that was then, and this is now. Badger point guard Bronson Koenig is back from an injury that kept him out of the last meeting, and teammates say the team has responded to the double teams they were seeing in the latter part of the season — which served as a sort of blueprint on how to attack them.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” said Badger guard D’Mitrik Trice.
It will be crucial, in this third meeting, for Michigan’s bigs to stay out of foul trouble. Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson have the right combination of size and skill to play with Happ, but it won’t mean much if they’re relegated to the bench.
Wilson, especially, flashed impressive post defense against Purdue forward and Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan when the Wolverines upset the Boilermakers on Friday. Conventional wisdom would have Wagner guarding Happ, and there’s no doubt the German will have every opportunity to do just that. But it will be interesting to see if Beilein gives Wilson any shot to play against the Badgers’ nimble big man, which could happen if Michigan goes small.
That post match-up will be all the more important because Wisconsin intends to run its offense out of the post.
“We always try to go through the post, especially early on, see how they handle it,” Trice said. “And then we play inside-out.”
Still, as important as the bigs will be in this game, the Badgers know they’ll also have to contend with Michigan’s greatest weapon of late. Senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. has been on fire throughout the second half of Big Ten play, including a 29-point performance against Minnesota on Saturday.
Wisconsin has taken note, and the Badgers know that slowing him down will have to be a primary objective if they’re going to close out the tournament.
“He’s just making all the right plays, it feels like,” said Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter. “I feel like every time I watch him play, he’s a senior going on his last run here, so he’s going to leave it all on the court. And he’s just making so many plays, whether it’s scoring or distributing. … So you can’t just take away one thing, because then he’s going to give it to his big guys for an easy finish.”
Walton seems to be in complete command of an offense that KenPom.com has consistently ranked among the nation’s most efficient. But the Badgers are taking that less as a threat and more as a challenge.
“It’s always a goal of ours to hold a team under their average, whatever that may be,” Trice said.
Both teams will be playing on tired legs — with Michigan playing its fourth game in four days and the Badgers playing their third in three — and there could be moments of sloppy play, especially early.
But both also seem to be peaking at the right time, setting the stage for what could be an exciting rubber match in the final game before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Trice said. “But I think we’re ready for it.”